For this view, sky's the limit

Blimp: Getting up for a game is just another workday in a `great life' for two-man crew providing aerial shots of Giants and Ravens on Sunday.

January 26, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. - Carl Harbuck and Matthew St. John claim to have the best seats for Sunday's Super Bowl XXXV matchup between the Ravens and New York Giants, but it's not what you think.

They have to get to the game about eight hours early and they're going to be a good 1,700 feet from the field of play.

You see, Harbuck and St. John will be piloting the Budweiser.com blimp that will provide the network overhead shots of the festivities at Raymond James Stadium - and about 60 other major television events over the course of the coming year.

It's not easy steering a 165-pound airship around for 12 hours on game days - or conducting flyovers with the media during the week leading up to each event - but the pilots think they're the ones in the catbird seat.

"It's a great life," said Harbuck. "Being the chief pilot of the Budweiser airship is the best job I've ever had. We get to fly one of the icons of our times. We get to travel all over the United States and Canada and go to all the big sporting events."

Never mind that the players look like ants and the blimp's eight-seat gondola does not have a restroom. The joy of flying the distinctive airship and being part of the worldwide television broadcast apparently makes it all worthwhile.

"You really get a thrill out of it," said St. John, as he guided the airship over suburban Tampa yesterday morning. "I went on vacation for a month recently, and I was itching to get back in the seat."

The wind was up, and St. John had to work hard to make the ride as smooth as possible. The ship has a control panel very similar to that of a small airplane, but there are no hydraulics to help control the rudders. The job becomes even tougher on Super Sunday, because the blimp will not be alone above the stadium.

Several news helicopters will be covering the game along with the omnipresent banner planes that will circle the stadium during the daylight hours. The Federal Aviation Administration assigns altitude levels to each type of aircraft.

Bud One - as it is called by air traffic control - will fly at about 1,700 feet. The banner planes must stay at about 1,200 feet. Helicopters hover at about 500 feet above the ground. None are permitted to fly directly over the stadium.

The blimp will carry a CBS production crew and a mounted gyro-stabilized camera to provide the overhead shots that have become de rigueur for just about every major sporting event. CBS gets the blimp service free in exchange for several mentions during the course of the Super Bowl telecast.

In the advertising business, that's called trade-for-mention, and that air time is no small consideration with television advertising rates ranging up to $2.3 million for a 30-second commercial spot.

The airship also gains valuable media exposure through pre-event tours like the ones that carried several members of the Baltimore media aloft during the past few days.

Of course, Budweiser is not the only company in the blimp business. Goodyear was the first name in airship advertising and promotion for decades, but now there are several companies operating airships for promotional purposes - including Fuji Film, Monster.com and the new XFL.

The XFL blimp was damaged in a crash a few days before the AFC championship game, but Harbuck says that blimp travel is the safest mode of transportation.

That may be hard to believe for anyone who has seen the historic footage of the zeppelin Hindenburg that exploded upon landing in New Jersey in 1937, but present-day blimps are filled with non-flammable helium and are not at risk to ignite.

"Even counting the Hindenburg, statistically, it's the safest way to travel," said Harbuck. "You took five times the risk driving over here."

It's easy to see why there are so few blimp mishaps. The airship's size makes it easy to see from great distances and its top cruising speed is only 40 knots -- or about 47 mph. It can travel faster with a strong tailwind, but speed is not an important consideration on what essentially is a flying billboard.

On game day, the job of driving the blimp becomes more complicated, because the pilots have to position the ship for optimum camera angles, listen to direction from the television production crew and monitor air traffic control broadcasts.

"For some reason, stadiums seem to be built near airports," said St. John. "For the last World Series, La Guardia Airport is right between Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium. It was pretty stressful trying to get your shots."

Sure enough, Raymond James Stadium is right next to Tampa International Airport, but passenger aircraft will not be routed through the airspace above the Super Bowl on Sunday.

When the big game is over, the blimp will be off to the next big event. It travels with a ground crew of 13 and a convoy of three large trucks that race ahead to set up a mooring mast at each stopover.

St. John, who flew fixed-wing airplanes before undertaking three months of training to join the Budweiser flight crew, knows this isn't the space shuttle, but with only about 25 large blimps in operation around the world, he also knows that he is in a very select group of flyers.

"Hey," he said, "there are a lot more astronauts than blimp pilots."

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